Tag Archives: History

Charlatans, delay, and normalization

On this day five years ago, Donald Trump wailed “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.” Obviously it did not work out that way.

I have remarked already that America basically normalized the Trump presidency. I think a lot lately about how “hypernormalization” is a defining feature of the culture, at this point; I don’t know how one can process contemporary America and not lose one’s mind, without understanding that “crisis” or “breaking point” aren’t really meaningful concepts.

In retrospect, the “Refuse Fascism” people were probably correct with their “Can’t Wait” for elections warning, if for the wrong reason. The big problem wasn’t what Trump would do in two more years or in three more months or in five minutes. The big problem was that the “wait patiently for the next scheduled election” approach meant that any and everything Trump did was thereby made part of “normal politics.” Imagine, again, if Ukraine had done that in response to a Putin crime capo being head of state. Fortunately, Ukraine didn’t. Unfortunately, we did.

Even more unfortunately, Americans were giving charlatans power over us well before Trump came along. Choosing a point when that began is an arbitrary selection, to some extent; some mild element of fraud at minimum is probably always present in political power.

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What if: Ukraine in a Trump Second Term

I think that I was relatively realistic about the outlines of how bad America’s possibilities were even before the 2020 election, whatever its outcome. Experiencing it still feels awful, but I can’t claim that I really expected far better. What did I write, among other things, how about “I only know that in any and every realistic scenario I can imagine, America will blow up.” I wrote that the election still mattered because a Biden presidency could prevent various atrocities; I probably meant in the sense of preventing them for a while, which seems like the most generous thing which can now be said of how it’s working out.

I certainly can not claim that I was thinking about the fate of Ukraine, ahead of the 2020 election. It is nonetheless arguable that the fate of Ukraine, and maybe partially Europe, has turned on the 2020 US election result. Jonathan Chait argued a month ago that “If Trump Was Still President, Ukraine Would Be So Screwed Right Now,” and it does not seem unthinkable.

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The Empire never ended

“The Empire never ended” is a phrase which recurs throughout Philip K. Dick’s surreal testament/novel VALIS. Like the novel itself, the phrase has stuck with me; in the novel it refers primarily to the Roman Empire and discontinuity with the flow of time, but I at any rate also inferred a broader reference to futility and fatalism.

Whether or to what extent that was the author’s intent, it occurred to me this week that both significances are compatible with the actual persistence of the Roman Empire in the 21st century.

This struck me especially when I looked at a Wikipedia page, about the French parliament, which displayed an ornamented fasces labeled “Emblem of the French Republic.” Now, Wikipedia’s entry for the fasces itself traces this back through Roman civilization to Greek and Etruscan origins, which I will presume is historically sound. But that doesn’t exactly falsify the sense of such continuity, across millennia, as to suggest that the Empire never ended.

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Re: “Socialism or Barbarism”

This is a sketch idea still taking form, but it occurs to me that Russia’s shattering of (what we thought of as) the post-Cold-War world order may be the era’s most popular argument against the accompanying exploitative economic policies. This may have long-term significance, but in the short term I mostly just have to marvel at the historic joke that (at least in the US) the socialists want nothing to do with this argument.

I’m not sure how much time to spend on something which possibly no one besides me would appreciate, even if they read it.

But, Democratic Socialists of America has, I guess, for some time called for the US to withdraw from NATO. DSA has actively reaffirmed this stance since Russia launched its assault on Ukraine, along with finding other reasons to bothsides the unprovoked invasion which is turning into a spite campaign of plain destruction. I regard this as gross, though not really more stupid or disqualifying than all kinds of more mainstream politics and culture. I would basically just “whatever” it.

Except that as I start thinking about the prospect of a long-term disconnection of America’s and allies’ economies from Russia, and the re-engineering which ought to accompany that, it occurs to me that the proximate motivation to “stand up for Ukraine” amounts to a very popular argument against capitalism.*

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Studying the news

For about five years I have been “studying the news,” you might say.

After the 2016 election, many of us myself included were grasping at ideas for what we should do in response. I joined organizations, attended protests, got a VPN, started calling Congressional offices… I also took the advice to “keep track of what’s changing around you,” a warning to us that the unthinkable can become “normal” without us even noticing, absent an effort in that direction.

I didn’t actually start until early January, 2017 the file which eventually surpassed half-a-million words of news and events, but over time I entered many earlier occurrences and now is probably as good a time as any to reflect on the experience.

I guess that to start with, I don’t think that there is really any substitute for doing something like this. Plenty of people don’t really pay attention to news, politics, government, etc., but I think even for those who do, the default is essentially passive consumption. I have used the phrase “studying the news,” here, because I think that it’s fundamentally different to spend time taking notes, organizing them, and living with this day after day after day for years.

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History is what happens while you’re making plans

Yesterday on Twitter, someone posted in a thread that: “In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.” While attributed in this case and quite frequently to Franklin Roosevelt, I’m not surprised to find this morning that the attribution appears spurious. I have not spent all that many years personally engaged in politics, but bumbling seems much more typical than something happening as a result of planned activity.*

That seems to apply to… a lot, actually, as the past year has been demonstrating in big ways.

It isn’t just that no one seems to have a credible theory of the case. Republican elites probably come closest, with their states-and-courts strategy for hollowing out democracy—while abhorrent it’s a strategy and it’s working—but even they seem to have a tiger by the tail. This looks like a disciplined, functioning strategy in comparison with most other political activity, much of which is ritual people just repeat because humans are that way. Calls, postcards, zingers online, letters to the editor; dance the ghost dance, shake the magic gourds, chant the word “bipartisan” again and again and again and again.

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The Beer Hall Putsch

On Sept. 13, I wrote this in my 2020 campaign/election/events diary:

Seems real likelihood that future is either

1. beerhall putsch

2. reichstag fire

My thinking was that Trump appeared to be on the way to rejection by voters, and would plainly attempt to sabotage democracy in some way; it might end up a failed farce(Beer Hall Putsch) like many Trump projects or it might deliver America wholly into authoritarianism (Reichstag fire).

I hesitated to give any public expression to this thought, owing to anxiety about which event was in the making. That hesitation continued after the election, even once it seemed pretty firm that Biden had met the conditions to “win.” The relevant institutional machinery is full of trapdoors, after all, and while Trump’s efforts to reject democracy have been a farce, pratfalls on an unsafe set can still be unsafe.

Eventually, I realized that oh, huh, then this is America’s Beer Hall Putsch, and would be even if somehow it were to “succeed.” The real story is that our situation is that far gone, it wouldn’t take much for even a halfassed-farce coup to succeed.

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Human progress as economic bubble

During recent attempts at some deep thinking about politics, civilization and history, I have pondered the long term and how present dysfunction might be little more than “reversion to the mean.”

An expectation of general progress, or of a fair society which lasts, seems hard to square with the long arc of history. My own impression is that after developing basic civilization thousands of years ago, humanity did not really “advance” much until the past 300 or 400 years.

The advances since then have included some spectacular transformations, at least for lots of people. Long lifespans, food to eat, medicine which works, flourishing science and arts.

Yet the systems powering industrial civilization are ecologically unsustainable—that’s just a plain fact—and while its product is an anomaly within human history, to date, resource burnout is not. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse explored a pattern of civilizations building prosperity upon unsustainable foundations.

What if all industrial civilization—powered by toxic fossil fuel combustion and internally resistant to alternatives despite many decades’ notice of the need—is just one more unsustainable bubble?

Yesterday, Slate reported on some similar speculation by David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth.

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The 1990s: Some things we missed

After nagging at me for years, a 1996 comic book’s suggestion that the 1990s would prove to be a lost opportunity, for humanity, feels like it at last warrants a serious evaluation.

A month after summoning myself to get around to that, though, I wonder now if the moment of opportunity is relatively illusory. It seems like both I, personally, and the concentric circles of groups to which I relate should have done more. Should have responded to a relatively crisis-free and prosperous moment by pursuing ambitious reforms, and deep cultural and institutional renewal. It seems like we might indeed have launched a golden age had more of us been more generous, and more active in trying to solve problems bigger than our own personal concerns.

But it occurs to me that this is less of a special moment than a regular failing of human history. Many eras “might have been the prologue to a golden age” if people were more generous and more engaged in reform.

I look at e.g. today’s high school student activists and compare them with myself and most peers, immersed as we were in comparatively trivial pursuits. We should have done better, attempted more at least. But I’m not sure what prompt we overlooked. I was concerned by problems that seemed to threaten my personal life directly; arguably so are today’s students except that e.g. those problems now include heavily armed crazies shooting them.

Perhaps older people should have been more responsible, perhaps leaders of some sort really did drop the ball. After tossing around various possibilities for how, though, many still seem applicable to broad human history not just the 1990s.

I think it’s possible, though, that a few fundamental errors of the 1990s do represent a “wrong turn” particular to that era. Ironically, it has also occurred to me that another pop-culture artifact that wasn’t even trying to be especially serious might sum them up. From Austin Powers, 1997:

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First alumnus to be Iowa State president…

Iowa State University announced a new president this past week.

Others have written more insightful comments about the choice of Wendy Wintersteen than I can. But I did want to report on my own small contribution to the broader historical record; that contribution was simply maintenance, but it seems that such maintenance is needed.

In perusing the online reactions to this announcement, I happened upon a story by the Iowa Informer. I was vexed to see Wintersteen described as the first Iowa State alumnus to become its president.

I knew for a fact that Iowa State’s 10th president, James Hilton, was an alumnus.

Happily, the Informer was responsive on Twitter and updated the story. I remain a bit resistant to their assertion that “alumnus” is gender-neutral… but they did change the story, not only to use the modern, gender-neutral “alum” but to describe Wintersteen as “the second” such. Cheers.

Meanwhile, I’m willing to take their word that “multiple sources were saying she was the first.” It wasn’t correct, but I’m aware that such historical record “resets” happen. In fact, this is the second time I have been involved in pushing back against one which involved a central-Iowa university…

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